By Charles F. Bostwick and Greg Botonis
PALMDALE -- With candles flickering at a makeshift shrine outside his
house, heartbroken Raul Morales Sr. described how a series of mishaps led
Wednesday to the tragic deaths of his wife and three young children.
"It's terrible. What can I say?" Morales said, fighting back tears as
he stood in front of the family's well-kept tract house.
His wife, Ana Marisol Morales, 32, lost control of her pickup truck on
Highway 138 in the far northeast corner of Los Angeles County, near Llano,
and it plunged into the California Aqueduct.
She and the couple's three children -- Raul Jr., 10; Sylvia, 5, and
Oscar, 1 -- drowned.
A cousin, Rosa Lopez, 14, of North Hollywood, who had been staying with
the family, was unconscious and on life support at Childrens Hospital Los
Morales, a house painter, said he was on his way to a job in Temecula
early Wednesday when his truck broke down in San Bernardino County. He
called his wife, who loaded the children into the pickup he'd given her
just three months ago and brought him a fan belt and tools.
Less than 15 minutes later, as she headed back home on the two-lane
highway, her truck veered off the pavement and plunged into the cold, deep,
Morales' cousin Oscar Perez said he was at work when he saw television
coverage of the crash and recognized the truck pulled out of the
"I knew it was her truck," said Perez, blinking back tears as he stood
on the front lawn. Then he saw his cousin's key chain, and the announcer
said it was a woman and children. He was certain.
Morales said he wants to send the bodies to his native El Salvador, so
they can be buried with his mother and father.
Friends and neighbors planned to start a funeral fund for the family
they called very good, helpful people.
"This is devastating. The whole family is awesome," neighbor Donna
Tuttle said. "They were the kind of people who would help you out if they
Staffers at Tamarisk Elementary School in Palmdale said Raul Jr., a
third-grader, liked basketball and drawing, and had lots of friends, while
Sylvia, who was in kindergarten, was shy and clung to her big brother.
"They were both really sweet kids," said after-school program
supervisor Lisa McLaughlin. "He took care of his little sister."
Their mother, who had been driving for only six months, appeared to lose
control of the four-door pickup truck, traveling on the two-lane highway's
right shoulder, when she accelerated back onto the highway, according to
witnesses. The truck then veered to the right and plunged down an
embankment and through a barbed-wire fence into the aqueduct, about 200
feet from the road, other witnesses told investigators.
Motorists stopped and tried to reach the truck, but couldn't see it in
the murky water. An off-duty paramedic on his way to work used a cell phone
to call 911 and the nearest fire stations in Pearblossom and Littlerock.
Then a passing state Department of Water Resources worker called the
aqueduct control center, which shut off a water gate upstream to reduce the
flow and lower the level of the water in the 15-foot-deep aqueduct.
"This is a real tragedy," California Highway Patrol Officer Rusty
Moore said as divers pulled the Nissan Frontier from the murky water.
"When there's kids involved, you can't help but think of your own kids. It
hits you in the pit of your stomach."
Officials said they believe the crash happened about 6:50 a.m. The CHP
got the report at 6:58 a.m., and the first fire engine from the Pearblossom
station, 10 miles away, arrived at 7:14 a.m., officials said.
Firefighter Ron McFadden, who earned a Medal of Valor in 1998 for
pulling a 9-year-old girl from a submerged car in the aqueduct a few
hundred feet away from Wednesday's plunge, put on breathing gear and dived
into the 53-degree water.
McFadden pulled the first youngster, believed to be Lopez, out of the
submerged, overturned truck about 7:20 a.m, then pulled out two other
youngsters. Off-duty paramedic Jeff Britton then relieved the hypothermic,
exhausted McFadden and pulled out baby Oscar and his mother.
The victims were all in cardiac arrest when they were pulled from the
water, fire officials said.
"I don't feel like a hero. It's just part of the job," Britton said
later. "It's discouraging that more people didn't survive."
The July 1998 crash from which McFadden rescued the girl happened at the
highway's nearby bridge over the aqueduct. The girl, Shanika Lister,
survived but now uses a wheelchair. Her mother had swerved to avoid a car
heading straight toward her on the two-lane road, and her car plunged
through a guardrail and into the water.
Caltrans settled a lawsuit filed after that crash for nearly $10
million, according to activist Lyle Talbot, who has campaigned for safety
improvements for Highway 138.
"It's really ironic that Firefighter McFadden would be called out to
another report of a vehicle in the aqueduct in almost the exact same area
as the other one," said Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Kurt
Staff Writers Jim Skeen and Marci Wormser contributed to this story.